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Houston area ISD law enforcement and education experts discuss the role of school police

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 12/2/2020 By Chevall Pryce, Staff writer
a group of people sitting in front of a crowd: In this photo from before the pandemic, Klein ISD Police Officer Christi Haggard sits with a group of students for the Leadership Academy program. © Provided

In this photo from before the pandemic, Klein ISD Police Officer Christi Haggard sits with a group of students for the Leadership Academy program.

After the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and other individuals killed by police officers in 2020 — along with the protests that followed — the national conversation surrounding police brutality and the role of law enforcement has come to a head.

Virginia Rangel, assistant professor for the department of educational leadership and policy studies at University of Houston, said the conversation is causing smaller communities to analyze and question the presence of their own local law enforcement, including police within school districts.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in 2019, 14 million students nationwide were attending schools with police but no counselors, nurses, psychologists or social workers; while an additional 10 million students were in schools with no social workers.

“Nationwide there are more school resource officers, or police officers, in schools than there are counselors,” Rangel said.

Social justice groups, including ONE Houston, Texas Appleseed and Children’s Defense Fund Texas advocate for less school policing and more counselors and mental health specialists in schools. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Texas schools have an average of 434 students per one counselor compared to the U.S. Department of Education’s recommended 250 students per one counselor and one social worker.

Rangel said that nationwide, ISD police originally had the same role in schools as they do in society — preventing crime and keeping students in check; and individuals’ perception of armed uniformed police in public spaces carries over to school campuses.

However, ISD police chiefs in the northwest Houston area said they are implementing proactive practices, such as trust-building with students, in order to avoid the escalation of situations. Klein ISD Police Chief David Kimberly said his force is trained, and trains other ISD police departments, to foster better relationships between officers and students.

“We’re just a highly specialized type of law enforcement and it takes a very special officer to work here,” Kimberly said. “We don’t just hire anyone. We’re very, very careful in who we’re hiring to make sure that their heart is pure.”

Origins of the ISD police

The Klein ISD Police Department was the first ISD police department in Texas, established and operating as of September 1982. Since its inception, and especially within the last decade, Kimberly said the ISD police department has evolved to take a relational, rapport-building relationship with students.

“It really takes it back to the safety side of it because we know that in previous serious acts of violence that have occurred on campuses, too often the conversation is, ‘I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t trust anybody,’ so we make sure that our guys are ready, open and available to talk with students,” Kimberly said. “The idea behind that is making sure they’re comfortable with me and they can talk to me whether it’s about family issues, issues they have at school or things that are going on, good and bad, to make sure we’re seeing the whole student.”

Although not counselors themselves, Cy-Fair ISD Police Chief Eric Mendez said his officers are trained to work with counselors and have their own mental health unit. The unit pairs mental health officers with licensed counselors for crisis intervention — integrating police with prevention measures.

“If there is a mental health crisis, officers may be involved for safety reasons or to help the student access the treatment needed,” Mendez said. “Counselors and officers often partner for home visits or welfare checks to ensure student safety.”

The reputation of police with students

Rangel said ISD police are sometimes called into classrooms when teachers need help with students, potentially escalating the situation depending on the officer’s training, when teachers could have managed the situation themselves. Rangel questions whether police are needed in most nonviolent situations.

According to an analysis by Education Week, from 2013 to 2014 Black students were arrested at a higher rate and referred to law enforcement at a higher rate than white students. The data shows that nationwide, white students accounted for 33.7 percent of arrests, 38.2 percent of referrals, and made up 50.3 percent of total enrollment; while Black students made up only 15.5 percent of total enrollment but accounted for 33.4 percent of arrests and 25.8 percent of referrals. In 2020, Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance published a study on New Orleans youth showing that most white students surveyed felt safer around police, but a majority of Black students surveyed did not feel safer in the presence of police.

“They’re a deterrent to kids who might want to misbehave or as an actual way to resolve discipline incidents,” Rangel said. “In terms of making people feel safer, it makes teachers and school leaders feel like they’re safer; it makes white kids feel safe. White kids are much more likely to view police in schools as something that enhances school safety. That is not so much the case for Black students who have a much more negative perception of police in school.”

Kimberly, who is also the president of the Texas School District Police Chiefs’ Association and leads training of local ISD police departments, said officers are constantly working to change students’ perception of police. Klein ISD and local departments have taken to restorative, preventative practices.

For example, the Klein ISD Leadership Academy has groups of students in at-risk situations work with officers and counselors. The seven-year-old program has several versions in elementary, middle and high schools in the Klein school district, attempting to build trust between students and officers over time.

“When we work with an elementary student, by the time they get to middle school they have a campus officer assigned there,” Kimberly said. “That program was around long before the social and civil unrest that’s going on with law enforcement. The goal behind that was obviously to work closely with our students, but there are a whole lot of variables that go with that program. One of the major ones is obviously working with our students to develop strong leadership characteristics.”

Kimberly said ISD police in north Houston receive different training overall from non-ISD police officers.

“No dig on them, no dig on us, we’re just a highly specialized type of law enforcement,” Kimberly said.

“If Klein ISD never has to arrest another student or take legal action against another student, it’s a good day in Klein,” he said, adding that carrying out arrests and legal actions isn’t the goal of the district’s police department. “Our goal is to help our students navigate through the educational process and become successful in everything they do.”

Protective measures

Both the Cy-Fair ISD Police Department and Klein ISD Police Department said they take protective training seriously, with Cy-Fair ISD officers taking 38 hours of active shooter training and additional training on mental health intervention and positive interventions.

“Every (Klein ISD) officer is required to go through a two-day active shooter class and then seven days of training, four of which they must attend,” Kimberly said.

Klein ISD officers are also trained to use tourniquets, which have saved two students’ lives in the last five years. This training could also enable officers to administer life-saving care if a shooting ever occurred on a campus.

“Mass school shootings are really, really rare,” Kimberly said. “Obviously when they happen, they’re very tragic; too many lives are lost and they’re hard to process as a society. They cause a lot of fear and that’s why school districts react by saying how they are going to prepare.”

Rangel said the aftermath of the Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018 caused school districts to double down on reinforcements and school shooter training. The 74 reported in August 2018 that at least 26 states had allocated more than $900 million toward school safety initiatives since the Parkland school shooting in February 2018.

However, Rangel said the additional protections and in-school drills may be detrimental to students’ mental health and school budgets.

“In terms of trainings, such as active shooter drills, there is some emerging evidence that that causes kids trauma, especially little kids because they don’t understand it’s a drill and not something that’s real,” Rangel said. “I’m not sure, given how rare they are, that this is a good use of time and resources.”

What is the solution?

Some school district police departments are working to relate to students — to establish a positive rapport and intervene in their lives before mistakes are made — however, Rangel argues that the answer to addressing issues with students does not lie with police, but rather with other positions such as teachers, counselors and social workers.

“Adults on campus should take very seriously their responsibility not only to teach kids but also to help them form those bonds,” she said. “Not every teacher is going to bond with every student, but you want to think about the students you’re concerned about. I think we have to balance the additional cost both in terms of resources and in terms of how our kids are then disciplined when we do increase police presence with the benefits that are less clear.”

Although there are calls to defund and overhaul police departments across the country, Kimberly said that ISD police officers are fundamentally trained to avoid conflict and relate to students — not a new practice, he said, but one that is unique to the specialized role of school police.

“We retooled this organization to make sure we’ve been meeting these standards for a long time,” he said. “Nothing that we’re doing is new. This is stuff we’ve been doing for years.”

chevall.pryce@chron.com

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